I had a pretty strong idea of what I wanted to go to graduate school for — and it may surprise you to know that I didn’t think I was going to find what I wanted in a philosophy department.
So I did. I reached out to names in the field, people who are names now but weren’t well-known then — I reached out to everyone I could think of. I sent simple emails, expressing my interest, explaining that no one at my university did the research I was interested in so I needed to branch out for advice, why I thought it was relevant to their own work (with citations if possible), and if they had suggestions for academic programs I should investigate, or other researchers that I should talk to. I made it clear I wasn’t going to be all “Professor Awesome in Field told me to apply to your program” but was merely trying to get a handle on something sort of obscure.
I sent ten emails. Eight people ignored me, one person wrote me back to tell me my ideas were a waste of time, and one person — the only professor emeritus I wrote to, and someone whose work I tend to use and quote from extensively in my own — wrote to tell me that if I couldn’t figure out where the right school was then I shouldn’t be trying to go to school, and that clearly I wasn’t cut out for academia. He managed to insult my general intelligence, too, as if I should somehow be able to intuit where researchers working in overlapping areas were without there being any guides or academics journals dedicated to the ideas.
Needless to say, I was dejected. I did still manage to get grad apps out, and got in to two schools — and well, we know how that story ends.
The reason I was thinking about this prologue to my graduate school experience was Carl Zimmer’s recent Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers. He talks about the sort of burnout that happens when you get people contacting you all the time, and I’ve always tried to charitably read the responses — and lack of responses — I got to my simple inquiry as something akin to this.
Of course, a generous read doesn’t mean that it still wasn’t frustrating and disappointing, and I think Zimmer (and the responses from the numerous academics and writers replying in the comments thread) would agree that the responses I got were inappropriate. (Not really in the “nurturing a curious mind” vein, anyhow.) But I can also see how the responses I got were likely borne out of lots of people — students of all levels, media, etc — reaching out without first doing as much of their own research as possible, and the inevitable burnout that happens.
These days, if I were to get such a rude response from someone in an academic institution, I’d probably turn around and fire it off to their department chair with a note about inappropriate behaviour. That may or may not be the appropriate answer, and it’s largely influenced by a lack of fear — I don’t need to worry about grades or getting in to school or things like that, and my reputation isn’t going to be more tarnished than it already is. But I inhabit a place of “fuck it all” that a lot of people can’t get to (at least yet), and they shouldn’t have to deal with the fall-out of other people’s bad manners.
So really, do your part: if you’re a teacher, emphasize when to contact an expert and when to do research. Take Zimmer’s advice and make the letter-writing a part of the homework, so that it can be reviewed for appropriateness (I had a uni prof who did this and it was a very illustrative exercise), and be sure students understand when to and when not to approach that expert in whatever field. If you’re a student, make sure the email you send isn’t something that could be cloned from anyone else in your class. Do the reading and research and think about questions based on what you’ve read, and figure out if you even need to contact the researcher or if you can figure out the answer on your own — even if that means more research!
In the end, everyone will benefit.